In Florida, Ronnie Sharp is The Pied Piper of Soccer; in Mexico, El Rubio Escocés, or the blond Scotsman. But the Miami Toros midfielder does not care what they call him, as long as they call him. "I like to be noticed," he says, and he is, for the first time in his life, everywhere, unavoidably. One Miami matron asked him, "What language do you speak in Scotland, and how long did it take you to learn English?"
Before a recent game Sharp told a reporter, "We're gonah coom ow here tonie an ge em froostrayid," which, as usual, he played a major part in doing. What is not usual is that people noticed. They were Floridians, and they had been weaned on sports statistics—RBIs and rushing yardage—and in soccer they want goals. Midfielders do not, as a rule, score, but as of last week, after only nine games, Ronnie Sharp had seven assists, more than any other player in the North American Soccer League, and most of them came on real boomers, long spectacular passes from way upfield. No NASL midfielder outruns Sharp, either, though he smokes a pack of Kents a day; and always, wherever he is on the field, he creates an almost eerie sense that something dramatic is about to happen.
It is difficult to gauge Ronnie Sharp's value to his team, except to say that it is growing. Last year he had only one assist and two goals in 20 games (he has one goal this year so far), and still was fourth in the league's Most-Valuable-Player voting, behind three high-scoring forwards. Sharp's teammate Steve David, who was second in last year's Rookie-of-the-Year balloting, currently leads the NASL in scoring with 10 goals, so it is not surprising that the Toros have a 7-2 record, second best in the league.
Says Toro Coach Greg Myers, "Ron puts in 90 minutes of go-go-go every game. He runs, keeps running and never quits."
Says another Toro midfielder, Alan Tinsley, "Ron supports you all the time."
How Sharp became Pied Piper is another story. He teaches soccer to children in Miami and Fort Lauderdale grade schools, as part of a Toro off-season community-relations program. His students howl at his accent and ooh at his footwork. "I think you're cute," come the notes from 8-year-old girls. In a game he invented, he dribbles the ball while three youngsters try to steal it. If they do so inside 20 seconds Sharp has to do 20 push-ups. Of course, he can plan how many he will have to do, but he admits, "I let the girls steal the ball, so the boys will try harder."
At first, Sharp went to the schools alone, showing instructional films and talking soccer. Finally other Toros joined him, and in 13 months they have demonstrated and taught soccer skills to more than 150,000 kids. But there is only one Pied Piper, or as Greg Myers says, "Ron's the first link between the team and the community." In April, after one of his classes, a soccer father told Sharp, "You won't believe it, but my son goes to school with his soccer cleats on," which is the kind of thing Ronnie Sharp likes to hear.
"I go to the school because I love kids," he says, "not because I have to. I love it when they shout my name. That's the best thing about this country; you come here a nobody, you work hard and you get respect."
Hard work is nothing new for Sharp, but respect is very new, from without and within. Only four years ago he was languishing on Cowdenbeath, a second-division team in Scotland, earning $25 a week. He was unmistakably gifted, but his heart was not in the game, or in anything. He had joined Gamblers Anonymous, out of desperation. Name the game—casino, pitching pennies, the horses—he played it. He was in debt, his wife of 3½ years had recently divorced him because, he admits, "She couldn't stand the uncertainty. I got my football wages at nine Thursday night, my bus left at 9:30 and sometimes I had to borrow the fare."
Sharp also worked the 6 a.m. shift in a coal mine. Most of the men in his family had been miners, and like them he appeared headed for black lung, or a disabling injury. At 17, in fact, while working beside a friend he calls "Higgins," he heard a rumble and saw the shaft overhead give way, killing Higgins and leaving his eight children fatherless. Sharp left immediately and never returned—to that mine, at least. He held non-mining jobs, too: washing windows, delivering coal, construction..."about a hundred of them," he says.
While with Cowdenbeath, Sharp practiced evenings, coal dust burning in his eyes, and played games on Saturday. One day former Toro Coach John Young came through on a scouting trip. When Sharp heard "Miami," he said to Young, "Take me and you'll never be sorry. I'll run my heart out for you." Young gambled, Sharp promised not to—and his life really began. As he says, "I never took football seriously before I came to Miami."
Now, in his third season with the Toros, Sharp has yet to miss a game. He did have to leave one, though, in 1973, after breaking his nose, and he was mortified. So when he broke it again in the next game he decided to keep playing. His teammates held him down and the doctor put a towel between his teeth while he straightened the nose. "The blood was running," Sharp recalls, "the bones were cracking and I thought my head was going into the stands. But I stayed in the game." And that is taking his job seriously.
But anything is better for Ronnie Sharp than not playing. He has this thing about sitting on the bench.
"He plays with all kinds of pain," Trainer Chuck Gross says, shaking his head, grinning. He likes Sharp. All the Toros do, be they British, American, Trinidadian or non-English-speaking Latins. To converse with the latter, Sharp taught himself basic Spanish. With a Scottish burr it is impossible to put on paper, but a treat to the ear. Sharp initiates most of the Toros' card games with, "¬øTu quieres unjuego Canasta?" And his Spanish is improving every day. How else could he speak with Guadalupe Rodriguez, whom he calls Lupita, his bride of two months?
They met early last year, in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, when Sharp was playing three games for the city's first-division team. He stayed five weeks, until the Toros' season began, returning last Christmas with serious intentions. He wanted to speak with Lupita's father, Don Quentin Rodriguez, and after three weeks a meeting was arranged. Now Sharp was nervous. "Don Quentin is a hard man," he says. "He never takes a vacation, he works 16 hours a day, and he carries a gun."
Four of Lupita's seven brothers came to the meeting, because, Sharp says, "They were afraid he would do something to me, and when Don Quentin came into the room he paced up and down for half an hour. He was mad. He didn't even know me and I was taking his daughter. Finally he asked me if I loved her, and I said, 'Yes,' and then he said, '¬øCuando?'
"I said 'April,' and he said, 'To bien.' I thought the brothers' eyes would pop out of their heads."
The wedding was on April 12. Don Quentin Rodriguez bought the entire front pages of both San Luis Potosí papers for wedding pictures. There were 10 violinists at his house beforehand, and they came to the cathedral, where there were 600 guests and a full orchestra, for the ceremonies.
Three days after their wedding the newlyweds were back in Miami for the season opener. The following Sunday morning Don Quentin phoned from Mexico. He had an orchestra with him, and he wanted to know what song they wanted to hear. They chose The Impossible Dream. For Ronnie Sharp, a soccer star in Miami with children shouting his name, a former gambler with money in his pocket, with a beautiful new wife from a wealthy family, and no need to work in the mines ever' again, it was an estimable choice.